09/17/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

It's Too Late, Baby

Some people might invoke Carole King's lyric -- "It's too late, baby, now it's too late" -- to characterize college itself, given the wasteful last half of high school's senior year. For others, college comes too soon, before a few years of community or national service might allow not only the brain but the character of young women and men to develop further. There's a good case for either position, but what I want to propose here is something less radical.

My proposal is based on two skeptical questions. Why would any college that wants to attract students propose to a 17 year-old that, four years later as a senior, she or he might finally get to take a special semester? That's like saying, drive the jalopy for three years and then you may get to take the roadster around the block. Time for a teen is pressing. But more important, why hold back the feast while making the first two years the medicine?

Answer: There are necessary kinds of knowledge and skills for graduating to the good stuff, and there must be a time for general education.

Counter: Aside from the horrible name of "general education," which sounds like a branch of the military-industrial complex, the talented young person deserving of a college education should be capable of working with a fair degree of independence or in a real-life group setting on something in which the individual has a strong interest. The wrong question in constructing a curriculum for the first two years is, "What should a student know?" Even the better question, "What should a student be able to do cognitively?" is stodgy unto spirit-killing. Students check off complex requirement grids in a manner that has less than nothing to do with engaging them in the ideals of liberal learning -- less than nothing because making varied learning a chore rather than an interconnecting thrill is actively counter-productive.

How about asking instead, what really turned you on to thinking and how that exciting experience might be replicated across all fields of interest? In other words, how about a set of intellectual seductions rather than a series of incarcerations?

During the time when I presided at Drew University, Dr. Amy Koritz, the head of the Civic Engagement program, figured out something very important. While we didn't have many special funds for her to use, she discovered that the one place any college is relatively rich is in financial aid, which in part recirculates tuition revenues. By creating a very small incentive, costing less than a single one percent of the aid budget, she developed a first-year seminar peopled by selected incoming Civic Scholars. Those students received an extra few thousand dollars, less as a scholarship than as a contractual bargain: They not only would center their first year in this seminar that wedded academic learning and social action, but that they also would create extracurricular means to engage other students in their interest. Not only did the yield of admitted students more than double over the norm, but it also doubled for those students who applied to the program and who could not be admitted -- because the school was offering an emphasis that defined the institution for them. Instead of saying, you're great, our school is great, let's get together, which is deeply shallow, in this program we became like Dickens's Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, with his trademark opening, "I know who you are." We know who you are, and we have an institutional fit for you that will make this coming September compelling for you, not three or four Septembers from now.

The same principle will obtain in any number of areas of interest -- international peace and conflict studies, say, environmental studies, finance and economics, the arts, the physical and life sciences, you name it. Such a set of programs also effortlessly sponsors interdisciplinary cooperation among faculty -- again, using many existing courses and resources but rethinking them into something special. To quote another pop song, it's easy as Sunday morning.

While many schools do feature freshman seminars on particular topics, very few offer a conceptual program. Elon has students choose a social challenge and work on it for all four years; Ursinus requires first-year seminars to pose the big questions; Bard's orientation includes an introduction into what it means to participate actively in a seminar discussion. These are superb innovations, but they should be seen as just a start.

Of course special programs will not work for all incoming students because many enter college without highly defined particular interests, including some very bright students. These interest-shoppers lead us to pose a second question about the overall quality of instruction. In that adjunct faculty have become an economic necessity, given too that the same person as a low-paid, overworked adjunct often traveling among three or four schools to earn a subsistence living cannot, with the best heart in the world, provide a quality of instruction and interest equal to what he or she would provide as a tenure-track faculty member, why do we have adjuncts teach first- and second-year students almost exclusively, when those students are most in need of our most skilled and accomplished scholar-teachers? It's by senior year that students should be able to learn most fully by and for themselves.

Answer: Those upper-level courses require greater disciplinary knowledge for faculty too. Real answer: Faculty don't like to teach younger students as much as more experienced ones. Realer answer: It's not younger students faculty object to; rather, they are put off by the course offerings for the younger students just as the students are.

Counter: If the faculty don't want to teach the course and the students don't want to take it, change the course. Imitate many European universities where the most distinguished scholar in any discipline is awarded the honor of introducing that discipline to neophyte students -- and the freedom to do so as he or she wishes. And if this change in what counts as status takes a little bribing, get out the candy jar.

When I chaired the English Department at the University of Michigan, I wanted to move some of my best colleagues into freshman courses. Luckily, the distinguished novelist Nicholas Delbanco was seeing his beloved daughters off to college and needed little urging to take on first-year students who might remind him of having kids in the house. And once a few of my colleagues of stature like Nick agreed to flip the curriculum, others joined in.

The idea here is not to make the senior year as dull as the first year can be but using the apt human resources to prevent the perfunctory in each year. And if my argument seems to vacillate between academic benefits for the student and financial health for the institution, the do-both here is all to the good.

One further benefit can illustrate this mutuality. At most colleges, retaining students from the first to the second year has become a major issue, and transferring has become an increasingly popular option. Surveys of transferring students tend to be inconclusive in their results. Some students leave because of economic pressures, some fail, some others prefer a different kind of school, some find the social life disappointing, and so on. I would substitute an intuition for such scattered results. Outside of dramatic family events, I have never known a single student in my forty years of teaching to leave an institution if she was truly involved in what she was learning. Not one.

The challenge is intellectual, and too often now our colleges and universities are failing that challenge. When we fail, it may be permanently too late for the student. And after a time, if we fail too often, it may be permanently too late for the college or university as well.